Whether Black Widow‘s simultaneous theatrical and Disney Plus release was a good idea is currently the subject of intense debate. As you’ve surely heard, Johansson is suing the studio over the situation and is furious as she believes VOD cut the legs out from under the film’s box office haul, resulting in it becoming the worst-performing MCU movie in theaters since The Incredible Hulk. This particularly hurts because her back-end deal was based on those numbers, with sources close to WGTC – the same ones who told us Luke Skywalker would return in The Mandalorian – saying that she would’ve made a lot more if the film hit $1 billion, with some reports noting she may have missed out on as much as $50 million.
But could Black Widow really have cracked a billion dollars? It’s true that since 2018 the MCU has been on a mind-blowingly successful run of hits, with Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: Far From Home all comfortably passing the billion-dollar mark. Johansson’s Black Widow is an established and popular character, so it would have been entirely possible for her movie to have joined them.
But that’s ignoring the elephant in the room: the COVID-19 pandemic. Though there are signs of recovery for theaters, the global box office is still way down due to skittish audiences wanting to avoid crowded public places (and that’s in places that aren’t still in lockdown).
So yes, Black Widow likely stood a decent chance of joining the billion-dollar club in normal times, but we don’t live in normal times. The movie had already been delayed for a year and it’s likely Disney simply wanted to get it released so they can move on with their Phase 4 plans.
We should get a better idea of realistic goals for a pandemic-era MCU movie when theatrical exclusive Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings arrives next month. If that does similar numbers to Black Widow, Johansson’s argument suddenly looks a lot weaker.
All that said, if Disney and Johansson signed a contract based around Black Widow getting an exclusive theatrical release then it’s on the Mouse House to honor that. Presumably, some bean counter has done the math and figured out they’d make more money this way, even if it means they have to fight a damaging legal battle with one of their top stars.
My bet is that the Black Widow dispute will eventually result in a settlement between Disney and Johansson. The case going to court would expose a lot of confidential information about Disney Plus VOD financials that Disney would definitely prefer to stay secret. Then again, it’s rare that the crack team of Disney lawyers back down, so we shall see.